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The 1996 NFD Year in Review 

December 18, 2003

by Rick Scaia  
Exclusive to OnlineOnslaught.com


[NOTE FROM THE PRESENT DAY: Shawn Michaels, in 2003, is once again a legitimate contender for "Wrestler of the Year" and a participant in two possible "Matches of the Year" (which might make his second Match of the Year in a row!)...  but it has not been since 1996 that he's been at the top of the wrestling world like this.  Fully retired for the years 1999, 2000, and 2001, Michaels only wrestled half-years in each of 1997 and 1998, and also only had about a half-dozen matches in 2002.  In 1996, he wrestled a full slate, had the entire WWF on his shoulders, and was, by any realistic measure, the deserving Wrestler of the Year (PWI's choice notwithstanding).  It is remarkable to think that in his very first full year of work since that dominating year, Michaels is right back in top form, contending for the award again.

Other interesting things from '96 include the launch of the nWo, Hogan's heel turn, the break-out performance of Steve Austin, debut of the Rock, and first gold ever for Triple H.  Keep all that in mind as you relive the year!  Enjoy...]

The 1996 NFD Year in Review
Originally Published Sometime Around New Year's 1997

A News From Dayton Special Edition

1996: The Year in Review

This special NFD Feature has been written and compiled by:
Rick Scaia

Thanks to the following for work they did in compiling information used within this special Year in Review Edition:
Alex Marvez, the Dayton Daily News
The Award Compilers at Pro Wrestling Illustrated
Christopher R. Zimmerman, 1996 Usenet Awards Coordinator

The NFD Year in Review

In approaching a special look back at the year in wrestling, I didn't want to seem one-sided, or limited to only one viewpoint... while my own thoughts on 1996 will make up a substantial portion of this recap, I think it will be interesting to first look at three other unique points of view on the wrestling year gone by.

First, we will examine the thoughts of Dayton Daily News sportswriter and pro wrestling columnist Alex Marvez, as provided in a year-end column. Then I'll recap the opinions of the "common marks," as gauged by the popular year-end poll (ostensibly) conducted by Pro Wrestling Illustrated. Moving up to the (generally) more intelligent wrestling fans who populate the Internet, we'll take a look at the major results from the 1996 Usenet Achievement Awards, a poll in which scores and scores of 'net fans voiced their opinions. And then -- not a moment too soon -- I'll take over the reigns and fly you all through a month-by-month timeline of notable events (as discerned by me) and offer a few year-end thoughts of my own.

I honestly hope you enjoy this approach to the Year in Review, and hope that even as we make our way well into 1997, this NFD Special Edition continues to be a useful reference and entertainment tool for many readers out there. Feel free to drop me a line, even if it's almost 1998 by the time you read this, to let me know what you think!

Alex Marvez's Best of 1996

On Sunday, December 22, 1996, Alex dedicated his column to running down his personal choices for the best in wrestling for the past year:

  • Alex chose Brian Pillman as Wrestler of the Year. In Alex's words, "no performer made as big an impact by doing so little in the ring." This was in reference to Pillman making newsworthy appearances in all of the three largest US organizations (WCW, ECW, and WWF) in the past year, despite only wrestling during the first two months of 1996. In WCW, while he was still wrestling, Pillman perfected his "Loose Cannon" shtick to the point that he not only had us fooled as to whether or not he was shooting or working, but he also apparently had Bobby Heenan fooled, as Pillman scared some expletives out of Heenan during a live broadcast. In ECW, Pillman threatened fans with forks and public urination, and nearly started a riot in Queens, NY, while with the promotion. And in the WWF, Pillman became the "Walking Time Bomb," and became the first man to introduce a gun into a wrestling angle in the modern era, in one of the most-talked-about angles of the year. Alex regrets that Pillman could not wrestle all year after a Spring auto accident, and wonders how much bigger an impact Pillman could have had if only he'd been in the ring.
  • Alex's Promotion of the Year is ECW. In addition to finding and grooming so much talent for the two major organizations (current Big Two stars such as Woman, Cactus "Mankind" Jack, Rey Misterio Jr., Terry "Executioner" Gordy, Flash "2 Cold Scorpio" Funk, and Chris Jericho, among others, all started the year off with ECW), ECW's unique storylines and format also influence the booking style of the Big Two.
  • Wrestling Executive of the Year goes to Eric Bischoff. Along with Kevin Sullivan, Bischoff has both generated the ideas and guided Ted Turner's financial backing to create the hottest wrestling gimmick out there (NWO), and the hottest wrestling show (Nitro).
  • Bret Hart is the Best Babyface of the Year. Alex compliments Bret's interviews and ring-work as being top-notch, and says that Bret's immense popularity and his decision to stay loyal to the WWF will likely lead to a fourth WWF Title reign at or before WrestleMania 13.
  • And Alex's Heel of the Year is Hulk Hogan. I think I'll just use Alex's own words here: "While Hogan's wrestling skill has become laughable (he forgot how to apply a figure-four in a match against Arn Anderson), his interviews with the NWO are excellent." Hogan has generated immense heat since his surprise heel turn over the summer.

PWI Year-End Awards

Pro Wrestling Illustrated ostensibly conducts the largest year-end poll of wrestling fans nation-wide... while reports of highly inflated vote tallies and PWI editors working the awards run rampant, I think that it's always interesting to consider the PWI Awards as a accurate assessment of more "markish" opinion. Interesting enough that the Year-End special issue is the only mark mag I pick up at the newsstand on a yearly basis.

Anyway, to take a look at what the average TV viewing fan thought of the 1996, the Year in Wrestling, I submit the following summary of the 1996 PWI Year End Awards:

    Wrestler of the Year: the Giant
      1st Runner-Up: Shawn Michaels
      2nd Runner-Up: Ric Flair
      3rd Runner-Up: Ahmed Johnson

    Tag Team of the Year: Harlem Heat (by only one vote)

      1st Runner-Up: the Eliminators
      2nd Runner-Up: Steiner Brothers
      3rd Runner-Up: the Gangstas

    Match of the Year: Shawn Michaels vs. Bret Hart (WM12)

      1st Runner-Up: Michaels vs. Mankind (Mindgames)
      2nd Runner-Up: Sabu vs. Rob Van Dam (Aug. 3, ECW)
      3rd Runner-Up: WarGames (WCW WarGames)

    Most Popular: Shawn Michaels

      1st Runner-Up: Randy Savage
      2nd Runner-Up: Sid
      3rd Runner-Up: the Undertaker

    Most Hated: Hulk Hogan

      1st Runner-Up: Goldust
      2nd Runner-Up: Jerry Lawler
      3rd Runner-Up: the Giant

    Feud of the Year: Eric Bischoff (WCW) vs. Vince McMahon (WWF)

      1st Runner-Up: Ric Flair vs. Randy Savage
      2nd Runner-Up: Mankind vs. Undertaker
      3rd Runner-Up: Jamie Dundee vs. Wolfie D

    Manager of the Year: Sunny

      1st Runner-Up: Jimmy Hart
      2nd Runner-Up: Jim Cornette
      3rd Runner-Up: Bill Alfonso

    Comeback of the Year: Sid

      1st Runner-Up: Jake Roberts
      2nd Runner-Up: Faarooq
      3rd Runner-Up: Animal

    Most Improved of the Year: Ahmed Johnson

      1st Runner-Up: Chris Benoit
      2nd Runner-Up: Stevie Richards
      3rd Runner-Up: Taz

    Inspirational Wrestler of the Year: Jake Roberts

      1st Runner-Up: Jushin Liger
      2nd Runner-Up: Ahmed Johnson
      3rd Runner-Up: Rey Misterio Jr.

    Rookie of the Year: the Giant

      1st Runner-Up: Steve McMichael
      2nd Runner-Up: Rocky Maivia
      3rd Runner-Up: Joe Gomez

The 1996 Usenet Acheivement Awards

While the PWI Awards are as good a barometer as any for the opinions of the average TV watching fan, for the past 7 years (first under Herb Kunze, and this year conducted by Chris Zimmerman), the Usenet Achievement Awards have been a respected indicator of the opinions and thoughts of the more intelligent, serious wrestling fan. These awards are international in scope, with many fans taking the time to include votes for their favorite performers from Japan or Mexico. While it's still common to something like the super-talented Kenta Kobashi of AJW show up in the top handful of "Best Wrestler of the Year" vote getters, it should be pointed out that as the number and variety of wrestling fans on the 'net has increased, so has the validity of these awards.

During November of 1996, scores and scores of intelligent, 'net surfing wrestling fans voiced their opinions in over 40 categories. While Chris Zimmerman, awards coordinator for 1996, is still working on a way to bring you the full results on the web, you can check rec.sport.pro-wrestling.info for the full results posting, or read on, as I will summarize the big stories, trends, and highlights of the 1996 Usenet Achievement Awards:

  • First up, the big winners:
    • Wrestler of the Year: Shawn Michaels
    • Tag Team of the Year: Harlem Heat
    • Best Promotion of the Year: WWF
    • Most Favorite Wrestler of the Year: Steve Austin
    • Match of the Year: Michaels vs. Bret Hart
      (WrestleMania Ironman Match)
    • Feud of the Year: NWO vs. WCW
    • Major Show of the Year: WrestleMania 12
    • Worst Wrestler: Hulk Hogan
    • Worst Tag Team: The Godwinns
    • Worst Promotion: AWF
    • Least Favorite Wrestler: Hulk Hogan
  • In my opinion, the biggest story out of the 1996 Awards was the fact that Rey Misterio Jr. had an enormously successful Breakthrough Year. Last year at this time, Rey was competing in Mexico, and was a virtual unknown in this country. After a stint in ECW brought his skills to the attention WCW executives, Rey debuted in WCW around mid-year, and quickly wowed audiences with his incredible high-flying arsenal and all-around sound skills. He won the WCW Cruiserweight Title in short order, and defended it for much of the remainder of the year, before losing it back to Dean Malenko. From virtual unknown to one of the most promising young stars in the sport in just about six months... it's amazing. And the internet fans acknowledged Rey's amazing talent by voting him in the top five vote-getters in six of the most important awards categories:
    • Best Wrestler (finished fourth)
    • Best Worker (which he won)
    • Best Flyer (which he won)
    • Best Move (2nd place, for his top rope to the floor hurricarana)
    • Best Match (fouth place for his match vs. Juventud Guerrera in ECW, 3/96)
    • Best Feud (third for his feud with Dean Malenko)
    Even more so than such major stars as Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart, Rey Misterio Jr. was probably one of the most-voted-for competitors in this year's awards, finishing so high in so many categories. Truly, this is an amazing set of accomplishments for an absolutely amazing athlete. Extremely well-deserved.
  • Another interesting trend in the voting by scores of internet fans is that WCW's popularity with the mainstream, cable-viewing public didn't translate to "critical" success with the more hardcore fans. WCW has equaled the WWF's pay-per-view buyrates and is blowing them away in terms of cable television ratings, but the serious wrestling fans didn't see things WCW and Eric Bischoff's way....
    • Despite the above-mentioned individual honors for Rey Misterio Jr. and lesser, but still mentionable, individual honors for Chris Benoit, Dean Malenko, and Tag Team of the Year Harlem Heat, WCW has a batch of stars that cleaned up in almost every "Worst of" award this year. Hulk Hogan, Loch Ness, Lex Luger, John Tenta, Steve McMichael, and Jim Duggan were among stars voted among the top five in more than one "Worst" category (such as Worst Wrestler, Worst Match, etc...) The only current WWF star to rank in more than one of these categories was Psycho Sid.
    • WCW also didn't deliver on quality matches on big shows. According to 'net voters, three of the Worst five Major Shows of 1996 were WCW's, and both of the two Worst Matches (the Doomsday Cage Match with Hogan and Savage against 8 men being voted worst) belonged to WCW. Also, WCW was not helped by having four of the five Worst Feuds and four of the five Most Obnoxious Personalities (Bischoff, Hogan, Okerlund, and Dusty Rhodes) in the sport.
    • All of this translated to WCW finishing third in Best Promotion of the Year, behind both the WWF and ECW. In fact, WCW was second to the abysmal AWF in Worst Promotion of the Year voting. That seems unnecessarily harsh to me....
    • Highlights for WCW: Rey Jr., Dean Malenko, Chris Benoit, Harlem Heat, and especially the NWO Angle all did well in voting for WCW. In fact, WCW had 3 of the top five Best Angles of the Year. Also, WCW landed all of the top five Best Promotional Moves of the the Year, indicating that even the 'net fans are acknowledging that WCW is making improvements and taking steps in the right direction.
    So for all of WCW's improvements over the past year, and all of their mainstream cable success, it appears that they have yet to get over the hump with the serious wrestling fan. Their strength is obviously their ability to have an enormous talent roster, and thus an ability to put on a compelling 2-hour live show every Monday night. But it appears that some fans are unsatisfied by WCW's ability to pay-off on the hot angles they can run on Mondays and by the weak talent that WCW has at the top of their roster.
  • If WCW's showing in the awards is to be considered surprisingly weak, then it's only right to be mildly surprised that the WWF, which was really strong as the year started, but which fell into a rut around mid-year, did so well in this year's voting:
    • Titan had both of the top two Best Wrestlers in Shawn Michaels and Steve Austin... and unlike WCW's entries in categories such as these, Titan's top vote-getters are also main-eventers.
    • The WWF had the Best Heel of the year in Steve Austin, and four of the top five Best Babyfaces (Shawn, Bret Hart, Marc Mero, and the Undertaker).
    • Both the top two brawlers are in the WWF: Mankind (who also had several matches as Cactus Jack in ECW this year which helped him win the voting in this category) and Vader.
    • Showing that the WWF delivers on its main event matches, Titan scored four of the top five Best Matches of 1996. All four were PPV main events: Shawn/Bret at WM12, Shawn/Mankind at Mindgames, Shawn/ Diesel at April '96 IYH, and Bret/Bulldog at Dec. '95 IYH. Shawn has now been a part of three consecutive Matches of the Year (dating back to the first Ladder Match with Razor in 1994), and this year was a part of the top three matches of 1996. In fact, his three opponents in those matches this year were so diverse that it makes HBK's performance that much more amazing; from the technical skill of Hart, to the power game of Diesel, to the brawling of Mankind, Shawn did it all. Great job by Michaels this year!
    • Having quality main events makes big shows seem that much better, and it showed this year, as fans voted WrestleMania 12 as 1996's Best Major Show.
    • Titan also delivered on regular TV shows, too, as Monday Night Raw, despite being a ratings loser to Nitro since mid-year, was an award winner over WCW's Monday show in voting for Best TV Show of 1996. In addition, both Superstars and LiveWire finished in the top five in voting for this category.
    • The WWF is home to three of the five top vote getters in the Most Favorite award polling (Austin was the winner, and Bret and Michaels also placed). Three of the top five Most Improved of 1996 are in the WWF (Mero -- who won-- along with Austin and Undertaker). And Titan has got gimmicks people like, as three of the top five Best Gimmicks went to WWF stars (Steve Austin, who was the winner, and also Goldust and "Loose Cannon/Time Bomb" Brian Pillman).
    • Non-wrestlers also provided the WWF with some accolades, as Sunny and Jim Cornette finished 1-2 in Manager of the Year voting, and Jim Ross was named Announcer of the Year.
    • All of this added up to a relatively easy win for the WWF in the Best Promotion of the Year category. After being edged by ECW in this category last year, the WWF regains the award it last won in 1994. This year, ECW finished second.
  • These are only some of the most interesting trends of the 1996 voting. As I said above, steps are being taken to bring you a full rundown of award voting for 1996, but in the meantime, please feel free to look over a document I've put together, listing the top five vote getters in each and every category. In lieu of the complete awards, it is a very interesting and comprehensive look at the opinions of the typical internet wrestling fan. Just click here for the 1996 Usenet Achievement Awards Top Vote Getters.

Rick Scaia's Year in Review

Of course, it is interesting to get multiple viewpoints on something as huge as a whole Year in Review... however, I'm the guy who's putting this all together, and as such, I feel the need to toss in a healthy dose of my own thoughts on 1996, the Year in Wrestling.

All in all, I think one thing is certain: 1996 was a good year for wrestling. I don't care if you've got an allegiance to a certain promotion or whatever; this was just a good year for the sport we all enjoy, as it once again regained a piece of its one-time status as a socially acceptable diversion for adults. The Monday Night wars have resulted in better wrestling, better storylines, and thusly, some of the highest ratings for wrestling ever. One some Monday nights, the combined viewership of RAW and Nitro accounted for over 6 million people and nearly 10 percent of the total cable audience. This can only be a good thing.

Before I launch into pure rambling and opinion, I'd like to look back at 1996's major events on a month-by-month basis. I'll include the big news stories of each month, as well as recaps of important title changes when applicable:


    As 1996 started off, the major title holders in the US were Bret Hart, Ric Flair, and the Sandman (for the WWF, WCW, and ECW respectively). But none would hold up for long.....

    Obviously, things got off to a hot start this past year, as the biggest story out of the January was easily the WWF's decision to begin a series of "Billionaire Ted" skits, lampooning Ted Turner and his wrestling organization (especially Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage). Sometimes hilarious and sometimes flat (but always provocative), these skits marked the WWF's first ever genuine public offensive against WCW, and led them into a period of major prosperity.

    The WWF also debuted Vader in January, and in fact, debuted him in rare style. Vader hospitalized WWF Figurehead President Gorilla Monsoon on a live RAW, opening the slot for Roddy Piper to be named interim president of the WWF.

    January title changes: Randy Savage beat Ric Flair for the WCW Title.... Raven beat Sandman for the ECW Title.... Goldust beat Razor Ramon for the WWF Inter-Continental Title.... Sting and Lex Luger beat Harlem Heat for the WCW Tag Titles.... Konnan beat the One Man Gang for the WCW US Title.... And 2 Cold Scorpio beat Mikey Whipwreck for the ECW TV Title.

    One of the most memorable periods of wrestling this past year came when even hardcores were being fooled by Brian Pillman's "Loose Cannon" shtick. In the first months of the year, he appeared to be shooting on Kevin Sullivan in a brief but memorable feud. He was undoubtedly the talk of the internet. It was a shame that before he could bring his new gimmick to fruition in WCW that he suffered a serious auto accident later in the spring that relegated him to the sidelines.

    Also in February, the WWF's eventual slide was foreshadowed as trouble sprung up with Scott "Razor Ramon" Hall. Rumors ran rampant that Hall was pissed about the Goldust angle. Or was caught on drugs. Or just flat out quit. All we know for certain is that bad blood did spring up, and that Hall missed over a month of bookings, including the lucrative pay-off match against Goldust at WrestleMania, and would leave Titan shortly after returning to do a series of farewell jobs.

    February title changes: Flair beat Savage to regain the WCW Title.... The Smoking Gunns were stripped of their WWF Tag Titles when Billy Gunn had to undergo neck surgery.... Lex Luger beat Johnny B. Badd for the WCW TV Title, but dropped that title back to JBB the next night as part of a double switch.... The Eliminators beat Mikey Whipwreck and Cactus Jack for the ECW Tag Titles.

    Hype over the promised WrestleMania return of WWF legend the Ultimate Warrior overshadowed a Titan announcement that Kevin "Diesel" Nash would be leaving the promotion in May. Nash clearly was a part of the crew that led Titan to such popular success through the early part of the year, and was now setting out on his final few months with the company.

    Leading into WrestleMania, the biggest show of the year in the sport (in this country, anyway), it was widely known that Nash was on the outs. But Jim Hellwig, the Ultimate Warrior, was returning. While Titan hoped that one would offset the other, we would never really get a chance to guage that theory. At WM, a new era did begin in the WWF, as Shawn Michaels was given the WWF Title... as time went on, the question of how Warrior fit in would have to be answered.

    March title changes: Shawn Michaels beat Bret Hart for the WWF Title.... Lex Luger beat Johnny B. Badd for the WCW TV Title.... The Bodydonnas beat the Godwinns in the finals of a tournament to crown a new pair of WWF Tag Champs.

    A super WWF "In Your House: Good Friends, Better Enemies" pay-per-view highlighted April. While the show may seem historically important as it was the final WWF TV appearance for both Hall and Nash, it was the incredible main event brawl that I'll take away. In one of the most viscerally memorable moments of the entire year, Diesel used the prosthetic leg of "Mad Dog" Vachon (who sat ringside) as a foreign object in this no holds barred affair.

    During the NBA Playoffs on TNT, Nitro was relegated to a floating timeslot. They tried to bolster interest in their show by doing the second of two WCW World Title changes of 1996 on free TV in April, as the Giant beat Ric Flair.

    April title changes: the Giant beat Flair to win the WCW Title.

    At the beginning of May, the battle of the big two seemed to be unfairly in favor of the WWF. Titan was hot off of a 4.7 rating for an earlier episode of Monday Night RAW, and was continuing to set a blistering pace into May. The 4.7 was the highest rating for either Monday Night show in 1996, and was also the highest rating ever for a taped wrestling show on cable TV. All of this was happened as Nitro was scoring poor ratings as a result of being moved around during the play-offs.

    But Eric Bischoff and Monday Nitro weren't going to take it sitting down. As May kicked off, word got out that Nitro was going to expand to two hours. And once the playoffs were over, we'd see WCW had even bigger plans for their now-bigger show.

    May title changes: Shane Douglas beat 2 Cold Scorpio to win the ECW TV Title.... The Godwinns beat the Bodydonnas at a house show to win the WWF Tag Titles.... Less than a week later on PPV, the Smoking Gunns won those titles back from the Godwinns.... Dean Malenko beat Shinjiro Otahni to win the WCW Cruiserweight Title.

    The Monday Night fortunes of the big two altered for the remainder of the year, as Scott Hall and Kevin Nash made their WCW debuts. In an effort to cash in on their WWF popularity instead of creating new images for them, WCW portrayed Hall and Nash as "outsiders" trying to take over WCW. This led to legal action from the WWF which -- to this day -- seems to have been completely ineffectual. Hall and Nash basically reprised their WWF gimmicks, but using their real names. This angle immediately caught the fancy of wrestling fans across the nation, as Nitro grabbed a ratings advantage that it would not relinquish for the rest of 1996.

    The other big news of June was that Brian Pillman, easily the hottest free agent of 1996, signed a three year deal with the WWF. In hopes of getting Pillman back, WCW had even started reincorporating Pillman's name into current angles. Instead, Pillman chose the WWF after a few months of stewing in ECW nursing his injury. Pillman has continued to be an impact player, despite the injury which kept him out of the ring for almost all of 1996.

    June title changes: Steve Austin won the King of the Ring tournament, and crafted a new "Stone Cold" persona for himself in the process.... Ahmed Johnson beat Goldust for the WWF IC Title.... Harlem Heat won the WCW Tag Titles, winning a triangle match against Sting/Luger and the Steiner brothers.... Pit Bull #2 won the ECW TV Title from Shane Douglas, then lost that title to Chris Jericho later in the month.

    No matter what else you take away from 1996, you've gotta grant that it will be remembered for a long time as the year Hulk Hogan turned heel. In a surprising turn of events, Hogan joined the "Outsiders" in turning his back on WCW and all they stood for. Hogan rapidly started drawing more heat (and more debris) than he had in years. In the weeks following his turn, Hogan and the others coined the "New World Order" gimmick that would become one of 1996 most popular gimmicks. Dastardly sneak attacks would actually work to increase the NWO's appeal with the fans.

    Just as WCW was gaining a ton of speed, Titan hit a major roadblock, as the inevitable problems with the Ultimate Warrior popped up. Miscommunications after a series of unexplained no-shows by Warrior (they were unexplained at the time, though he later did fill Titan and the fans in) led to Warrior being "suspended." While the parting was actually more mutual, the effect was the Titan lost a major headlining star. Attempting to fill that void, the WWF lured "Psycho" Sid Vicious back to the sport, a move which would turn out to be quite successful.

    July title changes: Ric Flair beat Konnan for the WCW US Title.... Shane Douglas won a Four Corners Match (against Jericho, Pit Bull #2, and 2 Cold Scorpio) to win the ECW TV Title.... The Steiners beat Harlem Heat for the WCW Tag Titles, but dropped the straps back to the Heat as part of a double switch three days later.... And Rey Misterio Jr. beat Dean Malenko to win the WCW Cruiserweight Title.

    August marked a truly hot month for WCW, as ratings were skyrocketing and interest in the NWO remained high among all types of fans. As a heel, Hulk Hogan remained a marketable commodity, and thus, a powerful force behind the scenes. It was only a matter of time before Hogan won another WCW Title. That time turned out to be August '96. On an otherwise forgettable Saturday night PPV from a Harley Rally in South Dakota, Hogan beat the Giant to win the WCW Title.

    As WCW was having a banner month, the WWF continued to be hit hard. After losing main eventer and World Title contender the Ultimate Warrior during the previous month, in August, Titan lost their IC champ to injury. Ahmed Johnson suffered a legit serious kidney injury in the ring, and would have to take the rest of 1996 off. The IC Champ was thus stripped. Luckily, when things were really looking down, a new major superstar was emerging in Steve Austin. After winning the 1996 KotR, Austin finally started to truly flourish in August, as he began calling out Bret Hart.

    August title changes: Hulk Hogan beat the Giant to win the WCW Title.... Ahmed Johnson was stripped of the WWF IC Title.... Steve Regal beat Lex Luger for the WCW TV Title.... The Gangstas beat the Eliminators for the ECW Tag Titles.

    Hardcore "smart" fans were sent into near apoplexy when ECW stars Paul E. Dangerously, Tommy Dreamer, and the Sandman crashed the WWF "Mind Games" PPV from Philly. The trio were ejected after whipping the live crowd into several "ECW" chants, and after the Sandman spat beer on Savio Vega. The next night, ECW's Taz got over the railing and crashed the live Monday Night RAW.

    While it made for some exciting action and for tons of wild speculation, Nothing further has developed from this apparent co-promotional arrangement. Though a lot of people seem to think something will eventually.

    September title changes: Marc Mero beat Faarooq in a tournament final to crown a new WWF IC Champ.... The British Bulldog and Owen Hart beat the Smoking Gunns to win the WWF Tag Titles.... And the Public Enemy beat Harlem Heat to win the WCW Tag Titles.

    October will be remembered as the month legends returned to the sport... although not necessarily where they were expected. Roddy Piper popped up to confront Hulk Hogan on a WCW PPV, much to the surprise of fans everywhere. While most fans over the age of 18 weren't necessarily pleasantly surprised (as Hogan and Piper did a hell of a lot better job with this feud in 1984-5), this was yet another hot shot angle by WCW that really grabbed the average fan by the neck and made him want to watch WCW. In a much more conventional return to his WWF home, Bret Hart announced his intent to return to active duty with a match against Steve Austin the next month at the WWF Survivor Series.

    In extremely unconventional news, October also saw ECW take big time heat from even its staunchest fans after they ran an angle in which Raven and his nest used a real cross and crucified the Sandman (complete with crown of barbed wire). While ECW is very good at toeing the line of what is extreme and what is in bad taste at most times, the general consensus is that toying with religious imagery is probably not a good idea. ECW quickly figured this out and apologized to the live crowd, and never used the footage on TV. They never even mentioned it.

    October title changes: Hunter Hearst Helmsley won the WWF IC Title from Marc Mero.... Sandman won the ECW Title in a four man match by pinning Stevie Richards (who was subbing for Raven).... Harlem Heat won the WCW Tag Titles, then dropped them to Hall and Nash (the Outsiders) later in the month.... Dean Malenko beat Rey Misterio Jr. to regain the WCW Cruiserweight Title.

    On its first night in an earlier timeslot, Monday Night RAW ran an angle clearly geared towards an older audience. Using live cut-ins to a taped show, a situation developed between Brian Pillman and Steve Austin at Pillman's suburban Cincinnati house which ended in Pillman twice pulling a very real gun on Austin and once forgetting himself and using the word "fuck" on live TV. Some fans criticized Titan, others praised them. But just about everybody was talking about this.

    Not wanting to be one-upped by the WWF, ECW once again gained some publicity following an ugly mishap. A combination of factors led to rookie Eric Kulas being booked into a tag match against the Gangstas, a match in which Kulas was willing to bleed. But unwilling to blade himself, Kulas asked New Jack of the Gangstas to cut him. Unfortunately, the kid and New Jack couldn't pull it off cleanly, and Kulas wound up leaving puddles of blood in the ring as real-life EMTs loaded him into an ambulance. Regardless of what you may have heard, this was an incident that combined many unfortunate factors, and blaming just New Jack or ECW for it is clearly a mistake.

    November title changes: Psycho Sid beat Shawn Michaels for the WWF World Title, winning his first ever major singles title.... Ric Flair was stripped of his WCW US Title due to injury.

    An unfortunate situation regarding ECW's planned 1997 PPV remains December's biggest news at this point. Originally scheduled for a spring '97 airdate with Request TV, the deal has apparently been scrapped. While the details remain foggy at this point, Wrestling Torch columnist Bruce Mitchell stated on the WON Hotline that he and his boss Wade Keller played some part in this. At this time, Request TV is simply saying that some of ECW's more "extreme" past actions have just now come to their attention, and state that as the reason for the canceling of the ECW event. It may be wise to withhold placing blame, and instead simply say that whatever turn of events resulted in ECW losing its Spring '97 PPV slot is an unfortunate one.

    On the heels of that bad TV news, wrestling fans were met with some exciting news regarding a new wrestling TV show in December. The WWF announced plans to kick off a new live, weekly, late Saturday night program called "Shotgun Saturday Night" in the new year. Rumors regarding a new hardcore approach and a possible ECW involvement continue to run wild as we countdown to the new show.

    December title changes: Raven beat Sandman in a brutal barbed wire match to win the ECW Title.... Eddie Guerrero beat Diamond Dallas Page in the finals of a tourney to crown a new WCW US Champ.... The Eliminators beat the Gangstas to win the ECW Tag Titles.... Ultimo Dragon beat Dean Malenko to win the WCW Cruiserweight Title.

And here are some other thoughts on what exactly helped make this such a fun year to be a wrestling fan:
  • I'm gonna lead with my heart, not my head... I can't help but feel that ECW's played more of a role in all this than people think, or will acknowledge. Extreme Championship Wrestling, the bunch of bingo hall residents that it seems everyone is talking about, have made their name, it seems, by having a rotating door: as they introduce new talent to this country, or put a new spin on existing talent, one of the two major national organizations will swoop in and take that talent away. Talent isn't the only ECW asset that's been raided. There have been some weeks when WCW programming seems like a virtual homage to ECW, as Kevin Sullivan borrows liberally from what he likes about current ECW storylines. Konnan, who promotes his own company in Mexico, has actually stolen the entire ECW motif, practically copying every aspect of the company for his own promotion. And Vince McMahon and the WWF like what ECW is doing so much that they apparently want very badly to work out a co-promotional agreement with ECW. That doesn't sound like a pathetic wrestling group working out a a bingo hall; that sounds like innovators who deserve a pat on the back from wrestling fans nationwide.
  • I already touched on it above, but I think for each of the two major organizations, I can simmer their years down to one Most Valuable Performer each. I raved about Rey Misterio Jr. above. The 'net fans all agreed he's amazing, too. The man has the ability to be the highlight of just about every show he's a part of. It is truly amazing to me that people can consider what Rey does and what Hogan, Luger, and the rest of the stiffs on top of WCW do to be the same thing. He makes them look stupid. Even being relegated to an undercard position, Rey made a year (well, a half year, since he didn't really join WCW till June) of stealing the show. Last night, he cemented my high opinion of him by working a super, Japanese style, high-flying match against Jushin Liger at Starrcade. On a show where the "Match of the Decade" was supposed to take place, the best thing one could say about the show is that WCW's best match of the year took place. On the undercard. Between Rey and Liger. Hogan/Piper? Clever ending, awful work... even the live crowd lost interest during the slow middle part of the match. Luger/Giant? Awful match which served as nothing more than a set-up for the never ending Sting Saga. Outsiders/Faces of Fear? More proof the the NWO is best when they're talking, and must less entertaining once they are actually in the ring. Forget all them, Rey Misterio Jr. is WCW's Most Valuable Performer.
  • And for the WWF, that MVP award has to go to Shawn Michaels. Not since Ric Flair during the mid 80's has there been such a perfect combination of character, charisma, and wrestling talent on top of a major organization. Shawn Michaels was given the ball, and regardless of what the numbers say about the popularity of the WWF during his title reign, I say Michaels scored a touchdown. He worked with opponents as diverse as Bret Hart, Diesel, and Mankind, and made all those matches incredibly memorable affairs. Lex Luger can say he is, but Shawn Michaels really is the "Total Package." After retooling his gimmick to be slightly less obnoxiously babyface-ish, Michaels can look forward to more title runs, and more great matches. He's got 3 consecutive Matches of the Year... I have a feeling in 1997, he'll find a way to make that 4.
  • I guess you can't talk about 1996 without talking about Hall, Nash, and the whole NWO thing. It certainly worked for WCW; that can't be denied. In early mid-1996, Monday Night RAW scored a 4.7 rating, the highest ever rating for a taped wrestling show on cable. Nitro was in the low 2.0's. In June, WCW got Hall and Nash, and embarked on 939,200,201 consecutive weeks of beating RAW in the ratings. To keep things interesting, WCW pulled surprise turns of Hulk Hogan and the Giant. The NWO was the most interesting thing going, so by association, WCW became the most watched promotion on US TV. For all the fault I could find with how bloated and boring the angle has become for me personally, you can't deny the numbers and the mainstream appeal of the NWO angle. It was clearly a huge part of what brought WCW to the forefront, and a huge part of what brought record numbers of fans to Monday Night wrestling.
  • To me, an annoying part of being a wrestling fan is sitting back and watching wrestlers who you really like and who you know are really good, but who are being totally wasted. Discussion of underrated performers therefore becomes the only catharsis for this pain I feel. And the most pained I got during 1996 was watching Lief "Al Snow" Cassidy whither away in the WWF. This guy wowed the very tough ECW Arena crowd in an incredible pure wrestling match against Chris Benoit in early 1995. By mid 1995, his super interview skills and ring psychology made him a huge star in the very different Smokey Mountain territory. And in 1996, he finally got a shot with the WWF. First he was "Avatar," and then he was "Shinobi, the Ninja." And finally, he helped recreate the Rockers as dorks-stuck-in-the-70's with the "Lief Cassidy" gimmick. Shoot me, but I don't think that gimmick should have been the death of Al Snow... but the New Rockers were jobbed so badly and so thoroughly that Lief Cassidy is now light years away from being a marketable persona. There are signs of light at the end of the tunnel, as it looks like Cassidy may be getting to break free of Rocker partner, Marty Jannetty. But breaking free is only step one of a multi-step process that will have to take place to make Al Snow the superstar he deserves to be. The early signs are there that change is in the air... here's hoping that 1997 bears out those early signs and brings this man his due!
  • A couple of "best of" thoughts... I thought the best all-around PPV of 1996 had to be WWF's "Good Friends, Better Enemies." In addition to a kick-ass main event brawl between Michaels and Diesel, this was a show that featured a lot of diverse elements that were all very well executed. A great power match between Vader and Razor was one highlight. A solid opener between Mero and the 1-2-3 Kid was another. The very popular (and very unreliable) Ultimate Warrior was a part of an interesting (albeit non-wrestling) segment. There was a little of everything. And a great main event to boot.... Best match of the year goes to the Shawn Michaels vs. Mankind brawl from IYH "Mind Games" in Philly. As good as many of Rey Jr.'s matches are, you can't help but consider intangibles like a World Title being on the line in a PPV main event. This was an important match, AND it was incredible, too, even more so than RSPW's choice of the IronMan Match (which was actually all the way down at #3, also behind the Michales/Diesel brawl, in my opinion)....  I think the best gimmick of the year is "Stone Cold" Steve Austin. Talk about a perfect bad-ass look... "Stone Cold" brings the right touch of realism and pro rasslin' bravado to the ring.
  • And finally, the "Man of the Year" for 1996. This is the one person who I thought did the most good for the whole damn sport during the last 12 months. And the man's name is: Vinc... no, I mean Eric B.... or maybe, Paul E.... no, no, I got it. It's Jim Ro... ummmm. Hmmmmm. This really was a good year for wrestling. But no matter how hard I sit here and think, I can't pin it all on one man. I think what made '96 such a super year to be a graps fan is that there were good ideas, solid execution, and great action everywhere. For every super idea Paul E. Dangerously had for ECW, WCW was there doing their own version of hotshot angles for a national audience. For every super mid-card match Rey Jr. was having on WCW shows, Shawn Michaels was doing his own version of carrying a company with his workrate in WWF main events. And as hardcore as Titan tried to be, everyone knows who the innovators of hardcore really are. It's a full circle. No one man or one company can take credit for it all. Vince, and Eric, and Paul E. aren't all on a "team" per se, but they are all part of the braintrusts which made 1996 probably the best year for quality wrestling on a national level in over a decade. It's hard to say anything (other than the AWF, har har) really sucked this year. But it's just as hard to say who was the best, most important force in the sport during that same period. All these guys aren't part of a "team," like I said, but this was a team effort. Here's hoping that 1997 brings more of the not-quite-friendly competition that made 1996 a great wrestling year.


Rick Scaia is a wrestling fan from Dayton, OH.  He's been doing this since 1995, but enjoyed it best when the suckers from SportsLine were actually PAYING him to be a fan.

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